I did conclude the last article by saying that next I would be looking at different narrowboat styles. I've changed my mind. Sorry. That will come later. This piece is about living aboard with a (very) brief potted history about the waterways.

Things You Will Need

An interest in canal boats, the ability to read in English. No sticky tape, glue, string or old washing up liquid bottles required at all.

Step 1

Narrowboats are unique to Britain. Their dimensions, at a maximum length of 71ft 6in and a beam (width) of 6ft 10in, are dictated by the lock sizes of much of the canal system. These canals were built in the early phase of the Industrial Revolution and were a transport revolution. Where previously loads were restricted to the maximum a horse and cart could carry – perhaps half a ton – over bumpy and often muddy unsurfaced roads, a means of moving up to 30 tons in just one boat load over many miles was a transport revolution that transformed industrial production.

One of the earliest routes was the Trent and Mersey canal, which linked the west coast of England to the East. A principal promoter of this waterway was Josiah Wedgwood, whose now famous porcelain was produced in the English Midlands at Stoke on Trent. It enabled the delicate chinaware to be shipped to ports on the east and west coast, and exported all over the world. The system grew into a network over the next quarter century that stretched from the industrial heartlands of England to London, Bristol, Liverpool, Hull and most major towns. Coal, raw materials such as iron ore, and agricultural produce could now be distributed to a far wider area than previously imaginable.
The staircase of broad locks at Hatton with the spire of St Mary's Church, Warwick in the distance

Step 2

The canals and navigable rivers carry little freight today, the majority none whatsoever, but instead have become a major leisure resource, something their original promoters and sponsors would not have dreamt of. There are more boats on them today than at the peak of their commercial working days. Many people have taken to living on canal boats, some as a fascinating way of slowly exploring England in a way quite different from any other, stopping here and there for periods of time as fancy takes them. Others have taken to life afloat to get out of the rat race, or as an alternative to the high cost of property in the UK. Some fall in love with the life and swear they would never return to land, freed from the burden of mortgage repayments, and the mail deliveries of utility bills and unwanted junk mail. A few find it not to their liking and miss the space a house offers. If you own a cWater lilies on backwater of the River Thamesoncert grand piano or a pool table than you cannot bear to part with, then read no further. It is not for everyone, but I have owned boats of different shapes and sizes for 30 years, and have lived on some of them on and off since 1992.

Step 3

Why do I like living on a boat? I like the relative anonymity for one. You don't get door stepping sales people or evangelical Jehovah's Witnesses turning up unannounced. The water is a calming influence, and what person with any soul wouldn't delight in leaning out of their narrowboat side hatches to meet ducks, swans, moorhens, geese, coots and other wildlife. The canals and rivers are linear green corridors that provide a haven for many plants, animals and insects whose countryside habitats have been severely depleted in the last half century by the demands of modern intensive farming methods.
Water lilies on backwater of the River Thames
In 1993, I left London and my then career (or perhaps I might say my career left me) and set off on a 58ft narrowboat to explore the waterways. I had often pored over maps and guides and fantasised about doing such a thing. For some years I had already owned a small Dutch sailing barge (known as a skutjse) that was my weekend bolthole from the hectic rush of the big city. Now I didn't have to wait until Friday evening to enjoy the boat, only to return to the bustle of city life and work again on Sunday evening.

Living aboard, depending on a bank of batteries whose power capacity is only replenished by running the engine, is a relatively green existence. Burning diesel in order to move and maintain an electrical supply may not be carbon neutral, but compared to a house, the environmental footprint is minuscule. Nowadays, with the advent of far more efficient solar panels and portable mini wind turbines, that footprint can be far smaller. Because you are not connected to the grid, you become very aware of managing your limited power resource. No unnecessary lights left on, and, because you have to cruise to get to a canalside water supply in order to refill the boat's tank, no wasteful running of taps either. Television, if you have one on board, is best kept restricted to things that are actually worth watching (not that much, to be frank). I delight in the radio, which is a far less power hungry beast, and often far more informative and educational.

Of course, not all people on boats are on the moveAutumn reflections on the Llangollen Canal much of the time. Not every one enjoys the luxury of early retirement, sufficient capital or the ability to earn a living without remaining in one locality for much of the time. You can moor in a marina that offers the facility to hook into mains electricity, and many do. For me, this is a bit like living in a floating caravan park and I prefer to be out on the canal with the views and less manicured surroundings. I confess that now, as I own a canalside wharf from which I sell narrowboats, I have it both ways. I am moored on my own bit of canal bank with an electric supply. "Cheat," I hear you mutter. Maybe, but as both my partner and I work during the day, it is a luxury that I certainly appreciate. And, come the weekend, we can untie our home and cruise off to canalside pub or restaurant, or just the middle of nowhere. You certainly can't do that with a house. It is of no matter that it may take 3 hours to get somewhere that you could manage in a 30 minute car ride. It is not the arrival so much as the journey that is the most interesting.

A common size of narrowboat for long term exploration or living aboard is between 50ft and 70ft. 57ft is particularly common as it has passed into modern canal folklore that this is the maximum length that will enable you to get absolutely everywhere on the 2,000 plus miles of interconnecting navigations. It is untrue, and you can get everywhere with a 60ft boat. Even at 62ft, about 95% of the system is available to you, and at 70ft, about 85%.

So what else do you need to know? The list could be almost endless, but to get going it is not that daunting. And there is nothing like hands on experience. 30 years on, I still find tips and tricks that add to my boating knowledge. Array

Tips & Warnings